For those of us who call Florida home, we know that hurricanes are part of the make-up of the land. We dodged the Hurricane Matthew bullet last year, but this year, no one could surely say they wouldn’t be affected by Hurricane Irma in some way or another. I had happened to be hosting a friend, a cancer survivor, and her daughter at my home on Labor Day weekend. My vision was to create the most amazing getaway I could for her, a respite from all of the stress she had been through the past few years. I spent weeks decorating the spare bedrooms, making them colorful, fun, and inviting.
When you live in Florida, you get used to playing tour guide. It’s fun and it’s one of the reasons why we live here. When you’re hosting friends and family., it’s easy to forget about the outside world because you are taking a mini-vacation from your routine at your own home. Since I work at home as a writer, this means I can be even more flexible in my tour guide role. We went to the beach for sunrise (6:30 a.m.) and coffee, and had acai breakfast bowls (so addictive) for breakfast, hiked the wetlands in search of alligators and water birds, ate seafood at riverside restaurants, browsed at quaint little downtown shops, took a painting class, and even danced the salsa late into the night at a Latin dance club.
Toward the end of their visit, I was out walking my dogs, while my guests were enjoying a poolside read on the lanai. I happened to see my friend and neighbor hauling in some bottled water. “I’m getting ready for Irma,” she yelled out to me as her greeting. Sheesh, I thought. The last thing I had heard about Irma was that she was going out into the Atlantic. Better check the weather channel when I get back home.
As soon as I got home, I checked online and sure enough, Irma seemed to be headed our way, forecast to clip the entire east coast. Since she was such a big storm, I didn’t know what my long-term course of action should be, but I knew I needed to start by filling up my van with gas, and buying some food and water. But, first, I needed to make sure my guests could get home safely.
On the last day of their visit, I made them a quick leftover lunch and got them safely on road to the Orlando airport. Then, I went out to fill up, navigating the lined-up cards that snaked around the gas station parking lot. It was only Tuesday and Hurricane Irma wasn’t forecast to hit our area until six days later. After filling up, I meandered through the gas station’s store, looking for a few gallons of water just to be safe. “The last box of waters are over here,” the clerk yelled out. “Come see what we have. It’s not much.”
Strewn on the floor was a cardboard box with six gallons, and some plastic packages of smaller bottles of water. “How much?”
“The box of gallons is $18,” she said.
Three dollars a gallon. What a steal!
Since I had no idea whether or not she had been telling me the truth, i.e. that these were the last gallons left on earth, I grabbed them, and some of the smaller packages of bottled waters as well.
Then, I drove to the grocery store, where everyone was in a frenzy, loading up on the canned goods, like soup, and chips and snacks. I just bought my usual groceries, but more quantities of them in case the stores lost electricity and had to throw out everything, like they did after Hurricane Jeanne back in 2004. I bought a medley of vegetables to make a huge pot of soup. Multi-grain spirals and a hunk of cheese to make my comfort food, homemade Mac and cheese. I bought several cartoons of eggs, planning on boiling them. I bought a bag of ice, and some bananas and other fruits, plus a large fruit smoothie, and bars. I stocked up on cat litter and dog and cat food and treats. Then, I checked out.
Once I got home, I started fielding the many calls, texts, and email messages that people from out of state were sending, wanting me to evacuate. But evacuate to where? No one knew where the storm was heading for sure so going to the west coast of FL was not going to work. What if I got stuck in a hotel out there, much less safe than my concrete block home? Couldn’t head north with all the other evacuees because I might run out of gas on the way, which would be terribly unsafe to be caught in a vehicle during the storm. Not only that, I had two dogs and two cats. Last year, when the eye of Hurricane Matthew was headed straight for the town where I live, I headed inland to Orlando and stayed with friends in their summer house. But, like I said, no one knew where Irma was headed, so the smartest thing to do was sit tight until we did.
My friends and family didn’t understand this, though. They didn’t understand that I still needed to prep my house, not to mention take care of my pets. A shelter was out of the question since none in my county would take pets, and I also wanted to leave shelter space for those under mandatory evacuation. So, that was that. I was staying.
Now that I had made my decision, I called up my jack-of-all-trades handyman friend and he came over the next day to put up OSB board on most of my windows, leaving my front window and door, and one of my back sliders uncovered. One of my biggest concerns was making sure that my backyard didn’t flood into my house and I needed a way out if it did. I moved all the furniture inside, all the plants, and other outside gadgets. My son and his girlfriend stopped by (he had left school to go surfing) and helped board up the house. He gave me a quick hug before heading back to college in Orlando to help at their school’s shelter.
One of my friends, who lived on the island and was under mandatory evacuation, came to stay over during the storm. She brought her cute little powderpuff dogs. It took about an hour for my lab and terrier and our guest dogs to get used to each other out on the back deck. The cats high-tailed if for the closets but eventually came out to make a nonplussed kind of peace.
That was Saturday afternoon. We walked the dogs for about four miles in the intermittent rain bands then came back in for a glass of wine and something to eat. We chatted and visited then headed off to bed. I was exhausted. While we had almost a week to prepare for the storm, that was all we did, all we could think about. When I awoke the next morning, my friend said she was heading home.
“It’s headed to the other side. I’ll be alright.”
I wasn’t happy about this at all, but she is a grown woman and it was her decision so there was nothing I could do. I helped her pack up her stuff in the torrential rain bands, climbing over my van in my overstuffed garage to reach her car.
Once she was on her way, I immediately called or emailed my friends on the west coast. Had they evacuated? Did they need a place to stay? I continued to text many of my friends who lived beachside to see if they needed a last minute place to stay. Some were in Georgia, some in South Carolina, some in the panhandle. I was glad I stayed home because it would be a bear to come back, plus now, most of them were in the path of the storm they sought to escape.
The rest of the day I spent sweeping water off of my deck during the microbursts we had received from a huge rain band coming from Miami. I did as much laundry as I could and put hot soup in a thermos and kept my water heated in a large stainless steel pot.
I made sure my phone and computer were powered up and that I had candles and flashlights ready. Then I sat back on my sofa and watched a movie on Netflix. As soon as it ended, the lights went out. It was about 7 p.m. The winds had just started picking up. I wish I would have emptied the pool one last time but then I wouldn’t have seen how the movie ended. I lit a candle and checked the house to make sure everything was ready. The dogs and cats were snuggled on their chairs and couches and settling in for the night. I wrote a few texts but wanted to keep my battery in case I needed my phone for something.
Once the winds got stronger, I knew on my own. There was no way I or anyone else could safely head out if something went wrong. If you needed help, no one could get to you. It was a strange feeling. It was isolating but I wasn’t afraid. I tried to do some reading but figured I would just try to sleep. Even though it was only 9 pm. I lit a candle in the bathroom, one with a high holder so it wouldn’t catch anything on fire, and tried to nap. I woke every now and then from the whistling of the winds. It was getting stronger. I checked the weather channel on my phone and the storm was only in Fort Myers, much more south and on the other coast. What was it gong to be like when it made its way toward Orlando? Eight hours had gone by and the wind was still whipping. It was about 3 a.m. I looked out the windows that were not boarded up and it looked like one of those scenes that are aired on T.V.. Palms bent sideways, horizontal rain. I made a cup of tea and listened for awhile with my terrier by my side. It looked and sounded like 90 to 100 mph winds. I decided to go back to sleep because there was nothing more I could do. I crossed myself and tucked myself in, completely aware, in that kind of sleep-awake consciousness state, that the wind sounded like an off-pitch harmonica. My roof slammed and I jumped out of bed, my terrier by my side. It sounded like monkeys scrambling on my roof. Then, I heard a loud crack. No water appeared to be coming into the house and it was too dark to see what had happened. So, I just sat there for awhile, listening to the howling of the wind. By 7 a.m., the winds had died down, so I took the dogs out, but they were afraid. It was no longer raining but the winds were still clocking about 40 mph. As I checked out the yard, my neighbor had pointed out that I lost some soffits and a lot of shingles. My backyard neighbor’s 40 foot magnolia had conveniently fallen between two houses. I was just too tired to deal with it all, so I just went to bed and got back up a couple of hours later. When I got up, there was no water, no electricity, and my cell phone wasn’t working.
In the days that followed, the worst part of it, for me, was no communication. Cell phones were spotty and it was difficult to find any contractors to help. My homeowner’s insurance company didn’t answer their phone. I didn’t see that my handyman had called until the next day and somehow got a call into him before my coverage went out again. When he got up on my roof, he said it looked like I had lost about 70 shingles during that tornado hit. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damage, in my opinion, was minimal. Some of my friends didn’t fare as well. Many were without electric for more than a week, some without water. Others had been flooded. I was thankful that we had all survived and that things, with time and patience, could be patched up. Surviving a hurricane is what makes one a Floridian. It’s what makes us tough. It’s what makes us appreciate the other 364 days when we can sit back and relax with clear skies, warm water, beaches, and palm trees.